Posted by on September 16, 2010 | Filed under Interviews, The Glass Menagerie | Browse the News Archives
Taper Takes on Tennessee Williams’ ‘Menagerie’ Masterwork With a Few Surprising Additions
From: LA Downtown News
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – As a young writer at MGM in the 1940s, it was Tennessee Williams’ job to knock out scripts he referred to as “celluloid brassieres” for stars like Hollywood’s favorite sweater-girl, Lana Turner, but his heart wasn’t in it. His attention was focused on a much more personal project — an autobiographically inspired script, The Gentleman Caller, based on a short story he’d written years earlier called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass.”
As fate would have it, not only did the studio reject the script, they fired its author for neglecting his primary duty. Dejected, Williams made his way to New Orleans where he sequestered himself in a shabby hotel room and set about transforming The Gentleman Caller into The Glass Menagerie — the play that would launch his career. Since its premiere the day after Christmas in 1944 in Chicago, The Glass Menagerie has established itself as one of America’s most beloved and enduring dramas.
The challenge facing any new production of a classic, however, is to find some intriguing inroad that has not been previously explored. So, when director Gordon Edelstein chose The Glass Menagerie for the 2009 season at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, his goal was to take Williams’ work and infuse it with the distinctly autobiographical quality that went into its creation.
The result was a highly praised rendition that was subsequently presented on Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre and that debuted Sept. 12 at the Mark Taper Forum (it runs through Oct. 17). The show stars three members of the original cast: Judith Ivey as the aging Southern belle, Amanda Wingfield; Patch Darragh as her frustrated son, Tom; and Keira Keeley as her daughter Laura, the painfully shy “Girl in Glass.” The newcomer is Ben McKenzie, best known for his television appearances on “The O.C” and “Southland.” McKenzie plays the crucial role of Jim O’Connor, also identified as “The Gentleman Caller.”
Darragh notes that Edelstein’s approach weaves in some elements that might surprise anyone who has seen The Glass Menagerie in the past 66 years,
“Gordon’s approach to the play opens up the door to embrace the fact that Williams is really writing about himself and his family,” says Darragh (pronounced Dara). “It also brings the character of Williams as a young writer into the play, and that adds a whole new dynamic.”
Toil Over a Typewriter
To establish the interplay between theatrical fiction and literary history, Edelstein sets the opening scene in that bare-bones New Orleans hotel room, where the author (be it Tom or Tennessee Williams) is toiling over a typewriter in an attempt to remember and unravel the sadly tinged events of his past. As the drama unfolds, past and present, the soft glow of memory and the stinging pain of personal suffering cross-fade into one another.
The autobiographical inroad also allows Edelstein to inject an element that is rarely, if ever, explored in productions of The Glass Menagerie — the notion that Tom/Williams is homosexual. It’s a challenging duality and subtext that Darragh says he is still trying to reconcile, and he spent the six months between the Connecticut debut and the Broadway run digging into the playwright’s life.
“I looked at all the interviews,” the 33-year-old Darragh says. “I read all the books. I went to St. Louis [where Williams lived as a young boy and the play is set] and I went to New Orleans. I saw how everything in the play was a reflection of his own life.”
Ironically, Darragh concedes, all that research ended up creating an unintended problem.
“In the New York production I think I got a bit bogged down in trying to encapsulate the entire life of Tennessee Williams into my performance. What I realized is that the play is really a coming-of-age drama for Tom. That’s what I’m trying to focus on in this production.”
In the gritty TV cop drama “Southland,” Ben McKenzie plays rookie patrolman Ben Sherman. He’s also the new kid on the block in The Glass Menagerie.
Sitting down between rehearsals on a recent weekday, McKenzie admits that taking on the part of The Gentleman Caller required a steep learning curve.
“It’s been a very compressed two-week rehearsal schedule,” says McKenzie, who will celebrate his 32nd birthday on opening night. “But everyone has been great and made me feel welcome.
“The thing that’s scary is that I haven’t been on stage in front of a live audience since 2002,” he adds, a hint of panic creeping into his voice. “I always intended to do more live theater than I have up to this point.”
By far the majority of McKenzie’s acting career has been devoted to television. In 2005 he won the Teen Choice Award for “Breakout Star” for his role as another new kid in town, Ryan Atwood on “The O.C.” Then came his recurring role on “Southland.”
McKenzie sees his role as The Gentleman Caller as fairly straightforward — at least compared to Tom. His character is a man who never lived up to his own expectations.
“He was the king in high school, but things haven’t turned out the way he thought they would,” he says. “He’s hit a rough patch and is working in a shoe factory, which is where he meets Tom. His newfound religion is the self-improvement teaching of Dale Carnegie. But deep down he’s filled with doubts. That’s why he keeps repeating these [self-help] aphorisms over and over.”
When asked how the introduction of Tom’s homosexuality affects his character, McKenzie describes it as a double-edged sword.
“There’s enough going on that the audience is going to be able to see it,” he says. “But you have to remember the play is set in 1938 and Jim is totally oblivious to it. All he sees is a poetic young guy with lots of potential who just isn’t focused. He thinks Tom is a dreamer. The one person he really wants to help is Laura. She’s his willing captive audience. But when he kisses her, he knows it’s a mistake and he wishes he could take it back.”
For McKenzie, who was born in Austin, Texas, and attended the University of Virginia, appearing on the Taper stage has special significance. When he was 12 (or 13, he’s not quite sure) he remembers being in the audience for Center Theatre Group’s presentation of his uncle Richard Schenkkan’s epic drama The Kentucky Cycle.”
“I stayed awake through the entire six hours!” he says proudly. “I thought it was amazing. This is going to be amazing too.”
The Glass Menagerie runs through Oct. 17 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.com.